The Never-Trump Manifesto: Why National Review Represents a Dying Brand

never trump
National Review Feb 2016 issue/Donald Trump speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

June 3, 2022

National Review has been the flagship publication of conservative opinion since their inception in 1955. Their commentary on key issues remains to be the go-to for anyone seeking a popular right-wing defense of surface level politics. In American Pigeon, we cite them in recognition of their compelling analyses and defenses of our traditions, such as that of the Constitution or the Second Amendment. 

But time and time again, decade after decade, they have failed to move with the tide of populism, dismissing it entirely or claiming it to be a danger—hence, their frequent anti-Trump rants. It’s a surprise Jonah Goldberg left them at all to pursue a more libertarian direction of his own—one might assume the profound vitriol against Donald Trump and the lack of political action of National Review’s type of right-wing might unite all self-professed conservatives from the Lincoln Project to The Dispatch, although perhaps that’s more tautological than critical. 

Populism is not a label we readily attach to ourselves, and we are often critical of its equally untethering quality as the inactivity of NR’s conservatism, so this is not a defense of populism as much as it is a wary criticism of National Review, who we are singling out with admiring respect for their editorial, including its founder William F. Buckley, Jr. 

Our criticism derives from what we see is hurting the conservative movement, rather than helping us along during this ever-changing and accelerating political moment. One could only wonder how a magazine that capitulates to the left—through what they cover and choose not to cover—could not understand the dynamic of power or the dangers of ideology. 

Conservatism is leaving publications like National Review behind. While their voice is still prominent for those surface-level issues, where conservatives can still agree on basic historical facts of our country, they persist to sit on the sidelines in libertarian stagnation, except for erecting anachronistic thrones of classical liberalism where they can shout into their megaphones about how we need more “individualism and limited government.” 

1989 is gone, and like the dissolution of the Soviet Union, America herself threatens to dissolve. “But alas, none of that truly matters. It is better to die with principles, even if it means shooting your own.” We believe, unlike those at National Review, in principles only insofar as they denote a way of being, not an ideological agenda wrapped up in the Republican Party. Our views on this matter are wholly derived from Russell Kirk who, it is no surprise, clashed with Buckley and kept the publication at an arm’s length for what he saw as ideological within both the left and right.

What will ensue are some points of criticism toward National Review and other so-called conservative publications that emulate them. They will not be around for much longer—they’re hardly around now as they are alive and well. So the question becomes: how much influence do they really have? To which we say: none. They have blasted themselves into irrelevance. 

We will caveat and make clear here that publications are only means of disseminating ideas, even those news outlets that claim impartiality. The ideas disbursed from them are used to inexorably enfuel politics. A publication of conservative opinion is not shy of its biases; but the ideas from National Review are those of a bygone era. They do not serve to help us; they hold us back. And such a shame this is, as they could be a leading force of conservatism as they once were, if only they were not liberals in the truest sense of the word. 

They persist to sit on the sidelines in libertarian stagnation, except for erecting anachronistic thrones of classical liberalism where they can shout into their megaphones about how we need more “individualism and limited government.” 

Points of Criticism 

Have a religious adherence to ‘principles,’ even if they result in your societal influence being lost. Better to lose with your principles intact than to affect real change.

For years, it would appear that the phrase “limited government” has served as a litmus test to measure the merits of conservative policy proposals, so much so that the term has become a mere platitude. It is not uncommon for a Republican political candidate to stand behind a podium and preach to his supporters about how he stands for limited government—thankfully this type is dying out. And yet all too often we never seem to discuss what that actually means or, more accurately, the inherent flaw that lies in the ambiguity of such a phrase.

It has become a fixed principle but, more than that, an ideological tenet whereby any sort of government power is deemed faulty and an encroachment on civility. This one principle has hindered conservative movement in politics, requiring fidelity to create some utopian vision where the government stays perfectly out of domestic matters—and then what separates us from libertarians? 

The ideas of limited government and free markets presupposes a mutually sympathetic social order. In the former case, a limited government can be disastrous for a democratic society when it is only one side wielding indiscriminate power, while the other merely says “no, no, we need limited government. No, please stop that. Oh well, we’ll just move back a little.” In the latter case, we forget that Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ did not denote some economic fundamentalism, but was predicated on a culture of like-minded individuals whose motivating self-interests guided the economy as though with an ‘invisible hand.’ We no longer have such a culture—a ‘free’ market is hardly free when it gives way to foreign and globalist interests on behalf of the American public, arguably reaching its quintessential paradigm during the same Reagan administration that National Review celebrated. Again, it is no longer the 80s. 

The brand of National Review harbors the attitude of classical liberals who lost influence after the fall of the Soviet Union, challenged by the populist Right, with the likes of Buchanan who has gained influence in a new generation of young conservatives intent on protectionism, an isolationist or severely limited foreign policy, and an economic and social flexibility that intends to promote social welfare rather than dismiss in unflinching pedantry the death of the family, the rise of single motherhood, and crippling college debt, to name a few. 

This one principle has hindered conservative movement in politics, requiring fidelity to create some utopian vision where the government stays perfectly out of domestic matters—and then what separates us from libertarians? 

(READ MORE: Increased Foreign Ownership of U.S. Land Poses National Security Risks)

Limited Government, Free Markets, Individual Sovereignty.

We must discredit the notion that conservatism is just classical liberalism. These catchphrases represent an ideology of a fixed agenda; it is not indicative of conservatism, properly understood. While conservatism is forced to preserve the qualities of that which passes away, classical liberalism does not encompass the whole of conservatism without sacrificing its actual modus operandi and sui generis philosophy. 

“Strictly speaking, conservatism is not a political system, and certainly not an ideology,” Kirk wrote in 1982. Rather, “it is a way of looking at the civil social order.” In his principles of conservatism, he writes, 

“The attitude we call conservatism is sustained by a body of sentiments, rather than by a system of ideological dogmata. It is almost true that a conservative may be defined as a person who thinks himself such. The conservative movement or body of opinion can accommodate a considerable diversity of views on a good many subjects, there being no Test Act or Thirty-Nine Articles of the conservative creed.”

(READ MORE: BURKE: Is Conservatism Ideological?) 

As the editors write in Burke: perhaps conservatism’s anti-ideological philosophy is why it is on the losing side of history. Unlike the left, it cannot defend an ideology without contradicting itself and feeling good about doing so—it will not debase itself in this way; however, the other extreme would be to defend an ideology as the classical liberals defend their own, calling it conservatism, without conceding any contradiction, even if it meant ‘gaining some ground,’ and so likewise effectuating nothing but stagnancy. But this inner conflict can indeed be resolved. One must allow for fluidity in thought, unfastened to dogma, i.e., to be conservative. 

As a classical liberal ideology as such, National Review ceases to be a conservatism of the likes of Burke and one of any understanding of power or its own philosophical tradition; it is rather subservient to its own political history, beginning with no ancestor but Buckley himself. 

Therefore, we can see that one of National Review’s weaknesses is its failure to understand the dynamic of power. To quote William F. Buckley, Jr. himself in the magazine’s Mission Statement

“One must recently have lived on or close to a college campus to have a vivid intimation of what has happened. It is there that we see how a number of energetic social innovators, plugging their grand designs, succeeded over the years in capturing the liberal intellectual imagination. And since ideas rule the world, the ideologues, having won over the intellectual class, simply walked in and started to run things.”

The ideologues, having won over the intellectual class, did indeed walk in and start to run things—and they’ve been running things ever since. The college campus, however, as I’m sure our friends at NR know, is not the only place where the ideologues are now in control. The mainstream media is almost ideologically homogeneous, and has been for quite some time. There is a near seamless left-wing concurrence between most of society’s prestigious and authoritative institutions. From The New York Times to Google, The Washington Post, Yale University, or the World Health Organization (WHO), it is the failure to understand the dynamic of power that, while National Review recognizes this imbalance, ultimately relegates them to issuing mere complaints.

But while they recognize this imbalance, they have yet to recognize its dynamic, i.e., the relational structure of power that the left has both philosophically and politically realized and constructed from the ground up. This is a fault of conservatives more so than publications—National Review is simply the latest victim, but pleading ignorance won’t save them. 

As we explain in “The Quest for Dominant Discourse,”

“French philosopher Michel Foucault once wrote in The Order of Things that, “in any given culture and at any given moment, there is always only one episteme that defines the conditions of possibility for knowledge, whether expressed in a theory or silently invested in a practice.”

Politics is hardly ever merely theoretical and never silent as much as it is dramaturgical; but what Foucault is saying is that a dominant set of ideas and values (episteme) shapes the way we identify and interact with knowledge. When a certain way of speaking, or a discourse, is dominant, or when narratives are made to be uniform across institutions, then they determine what we consider to be true.” 

In other words, power is hegemonic, it is both supported by prevailing knowledge and the politics through which it is practicable and justified. Leftist outlets and academic institutions have the upper hand when it comes to influencing corporations or branches of the government. They do not care about contradictions in their ideology—and indeed what they speak is ideology; they have little concern about consistency or the ensuing ads that may be used against them. They wield power and are not ashamed of it. 

If President Biden were to move to pack the Supreme Court to ram through federal gun control executive orders, how inconceivable would it be that the Washington Post would publish an opinion on the beneficiality of that move? 

“Don’t play the left’s game, no matter how much ground you cede.” This is a fair point without the latter. And after all, NR is simply a publication, not a political candidate or organization. But it is important to ask any conservative, to what extent do they hope to achieve social change? The proponents of NR believe that effectual change comes from winning an argument rather than using power to do what is best for the country. They are conservatives who relegate themselves to the corner and therefore disseminate ideas that justify this lack of action. 

But criticizing Ron DeSantis as a “fight club” conservative is telling of where National Review stands when it comes to doing anything at all. However, to be fair, this is only the opinion of a couple writers; but we see a general attitude when it comes to the publication at large and their treatment of politics that demands more than what the Republican Party has been able to provide before 2016, as is evident in their fierce opposition to Donald Trump in some vain attempt to be…principled? To be a “true” conservative? Again, conservatism is neither classical liberalism nor consists of an absolute doctrine. 

A publication of conservative opinion is not shy of its biases; but the ideas from National Review are those of a bygone era. They do not serve to help us; they hold us back. And such a shame this is, as they could be a leading force of conservatism as they once were, if only they were not liberals in the truest sense of the word. 

Donald Trump

National Review injected itself into a national controversy when the magazine published its February 16, 2016 issue, Against Trump. Ever since, the magazine has steadily maintained its anti-Trump stance. In the opening article of the issue, “Conservatives Against Trump,” which was published on behalf of the entire NR Staff, the objection to Donald Trump is clear: the phenomenon taking place in the Republican Party isn’t conservatism. 

L. Brent Bozell III was quite clear in this sentiment when he wrote,

“A real conservative walks with us. Ronald Reagan read National Review and Human Events for intellectual sustenance; spoke annually to the Conservative Political Action Conference, Young Americans for Freedom, and other organizations to rally the troops; supported Barry Goldwater when the GOP mainstream turned its back on him; raised money for countless conservative groups; wrote hundreds of op-eds; and delivered even more speeches, everywhere championing our cause.”

Mona Charen, in her entry, accused Trump of not being a real conservative when she wrote,

“Is Trump a liberal? Who knows? He played one for decades—donating to liberal causes and politicians (including Al Sharpton) and inviting Hillary Clinton to his (third) wedding. Maybe it was all a game, but voters who care about conservative ideas and principles must ask whether his recent impersonation of a conservative is just another role he’s playing.”

Perhaps it is true that Donald Trump is not personally conservative. National Review is correct when it hammers down the reality that Trump was a Democrat for many years, and had a history of making nice with liberal politicians such as Hillary Clinton. On the surface, National Review’s objections seemed valid at the time.

But after four years of Trump’s presidency, regardless of his personal flaws, we believe it is quite clear that National Review was wrong in predicting just how conservative Trump would be when it came to governing. His policy agenda was undoubtedly a conservative one, though perhaps it was not guided by the type of conservatism National Review approved of.

And while we criticize National Review for its unbridled skepticism in Trump’s populism, as well as the movement he catalyzed, we nevertheless resonate with the magazine when questioning Trump’s viability as the long-term leader of the conservative movement in America.

We believe the movement that Trump catalyzed is far bigger than him, even if he refuses to acknowledge it. And if National Review is right about one thing, it is the intellectual handicap that manifests naturally in Trump. Many associate the Make America Great Again (MAGA) movement with paleoconservative thinker Patrick Buchanan, which to a certain extent appears to be a valid comparison, but what are the realistic chances that Trump has indulged in the intellectual annals of conservative philosophy?

In partial agreement with National Review, we would say that these chances are close to zero. While we are against what seems to be NR’s adamant opposition of conservative populism—which, as we’ve said before, is much to the detriment of the once-bulwark conservative journal—we nevertheless submit that the future of the conservative movement will depend on conquering a new intellectual frontier, or at the very least, revitalizing an old one left behind by the classically liberal Buckley-brand intellectuals.

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